Monday, May 23, 2011

Believe It Or Not

For a while now — going back to the Clinton administration at least, but more noticeable now in the time of Barack Obama — the Republicans have come up with some very strange litmus tests for their candidates, and some very tough stands on those who don’t toe the line. Jacob Weisberg notes in Slate how it is tilting the party to the edge of reality.

At a press conference last week, someone asked Chris Christie for his views on evolution vs. creationism. “That’s none of your business,” the New Jersey governor barked in response.

This minor incident, which barely rated as news for a few political blogs, offers a glimpse of Christie’s personality, which seems increasingly grumpy and snappish. But it says even more about the current state of the national Republican Party, where magical thinking trumps rationality, and even to acknowledge basic realities about the world we live in runs the risk of damaging one’s political future.

Christie is not part of the natural constituency for Darwin-denial. He’s an intelligent man, a lawyer, a fiscal rather than a social conservative. But Christie is also someone who might want to run for president someday, or be selected as someone’s running mate. For those purposes, he must constantly ask himself the question: Am I about to say something to which a white, evangelical, socially conservative, gun-owning, Obama-despising, pro-Tea Party, GOP primary voter in rural South Carolina might object? By this standard, simple acceptance of the theory of evolution becomes a risky stance. To lie or to duck? Christie chose the option of ducking while signaling his annoyance at being put in this ridiculous predicament.

Moments like this point to a growing asymmetry in our politics. One party, the Democrats, suffers from the usual range of institutional blind spots, historical foibles, and constituency-driven evasions. The other, the Republicans, has moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

Last week proved another part of the equation: violate the orthodoxy at your peril, as shown by the paroxysms of pretzel logic that Newt Gingrich went through between his appearance on Meet the Press last Sunday and his appearance on Face The Nation yesterday. Mr. Gingrich certainly got a taste of the GOP version of campaign waterboarding.

It sends out a very clear signal to the rest of the candidates or those who are thinking they might run as well: watch what you say about anything ranging from the debt ceiling, climate change, the economy, and of course the major issues such as evolution and biblical truths. One of the reasons Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels may have decided on passing up a run for the White House goes back to a statement he made about calling a “truce” on social issues such as marriage equality and focusing on the economy in the 2012 campaign. The guns were already being loaded on that gaffe. The fact that Mr. Daniels was also the budget director in the Bush administration — the one that got us where were are today — and that he was seen as a credible spokesman on the economy tells you that we’ve skated off into La-La Land.

Mr. Weisberg wonders if the GOP candidates who are chasing the nomination actually believe the stuff they have to repeat. I’m not sure it matters. It’s a test of their character, and they lost.